The exhibition “Rembrandt’s Mother: Myth and Reality” was part of the worldwide celebration of Rembrandt’s 400th birthday. In that show, and in the catalogue published under the same title, primary authors Christiaan Vogelaar and Gerbrand Korevaar tackle a long-standing popular myth about Rembrandt. The premise of the book, and its essential approach, is explained in the foreword by Lakenhal museum director Henriette Bolton-Rempt. She rightly characterizes the nineteenth-century preoccupation with identifying Rembrandt’s sitters as members of his immediate family as “obsolete… created purely out of an irrepressible romantic need to see Rembrandt as a painter who… [was] inspired by his own surroundings (p. 8).” Nineteenth-century Rembrandt scholars such as Wolfgang Bode and Kurt Bauch indeed generated many of the familial identifications in Rembrandt’s work, which have been soundly criticized by modern scholars. Yet in this exhibition and its catalogue, we see that that romantic need is still alive and well. The authors assemble not only the images that were identified with Rembrandt’s family members in seventeenth-century inventories and descriptions, but also related images by Rembrandt and others showing similar sitters. Old men and women predominate: there are 30 works connected to the theme of Rembrandt’s mother, 33 to that of his father, three supposedly showing his brother Adriaen, and one of his sister Lysbeth.
In the absence of any introduction or overview Vogelaar and Korevaar regarding their approach to this enterprise, one turns to the structure of the book to determine what the authors intend to do. The catalogue section groups all the assembled images, regardless of artist or medium, by sitter. This is useful in that one can see similar themes and relationships among the artists who operated in Leiden after about 1624. Since we have little concrete information about Rembrandt’s Leiden period, the structure of his workshop, his pupils, and his relationships with established artists like Jan Lievens, these juxtapositions reveal interesting stylistic and thematic connections. But the structure also fragments any narrative along chronological or contextual lines, limiting the discussion to how a similar type of head was used by several artists. Though written by several authors and without consistency in length or focus, the entries are in themselves very useful. They address questions such as the iconography of old age and the role of tronies, among other things, including (especially in the entries written by Ernst van de Wetering) stylistic affinities among works. The one continuous theme in the entries is, however, the relative probability of the sitter being indeed Rembrandt’s mother, father, sister or brother.
The biographical orientation of the catalogue is evident structurally as well: a short summary of the life of the supposed sitter written by Leiden archivist P.J.M. de Baar (unfortunately without notes) prefaces each section. A reader is thus guided to make connections between the life of the sitter and the images grouped together as representations of that sitter. Certainly the validity of such an approach is questionable at best. In fact, the structure of the book often appears to be in conflict with the detailed scholarship in the text. The section devoted to Lysbeth, Rembrandt’s sister, contains one entry, on Rembrandt’sYoung Woman in a Beret (1632, Private Collection). However, Korevaar, the author of the entry, argues against the identification. He points out that no evidence exists to prove that Rembrandt ever painted his sister, and rightly discusses this work as a tronie.
One turns to the essays to discover a more nuanced discussion of several key and highly intriguing questions raised by these images and entries. A first, methodological point is: to what extent are the identities of the figures in Rembrandt’s history paintings discoverable? A second concerns reception: how would such references to known persons (if they exist) operate for both contemporary Dutch audiences and modern viewers? Lastly, what contribution does this analysis make to our understanding of the images? The four essays circle around these questions. Christiaan Vogelaar’s essay on the Leiden context of these works touches upon Rembrandt’s reasons to set up shop in Leiden, his use of tronies in studio practice and his relationship with the older artist Jan Lievens. There is some repetition in his sections (on the use of family members as models, for example) with the essays that follow, and a few inconsistencies that could be solved with more careful editing (did Rembrandt’s mother Neeltgen leave “about 12,000 florins” upon her death [p. 13] or “ almost 10,000” [p. 81]?). Having laid out the evidence for these images to be seen as tronies, that is, without specific identities attached, Vogelaar’s conclusion that these images do indeed represent Rembrandt’s family is disconcerting. Why such identifications would matter to art historical scholarship also remains unaddressed.
Gerbrandt Korevaar’s essay on the historiography of the question offers an answer. He argues that the obsession with biographical identities in Rembrandt’s works originated from the lifelikeness of his style. This quality was in fact valued and extolled by Rembrandt’s contemporaries in the 1630s. Korevaar traces the first identifications of the sitters as Rembrandt’s “mother” and “father” in the 1660s and 1670s, and the connection of such identifications to changing ideas of naturalism through the eighteenth century. Korevaar clearly shows how nineteenth-century ideas about Rembrandt’s personal genius and his dependence on domestic life in his art fed into the interest in depictions of his family. Modern scholarship, as Korevaar points out, has dismissed all of the biographical identifications of Rembrandt’s sitters, based on lack of any reliable evidence connecting any work to any member of his family. Though Korevaar’s conclusion is absolutely correct, in the context of a book that holds such identifications dear, this is another disconcerting moment.
The following two essays are iconographic and thematic in nature. Anouk Janssen’s essay, “The iconography of old age and Rembrandt’s early work,” sets the painter’s images of old men and women in the context of humanist pictorial traditions. Using emblematic and other textual sources, Jannsen shows that images of old people often encapsulated perceived virtues of that stage of life (moderation, wisdom, faith, fortitude in the face of death) or their vices (foolishness, miserliness, lechery). The thematic similarity revealed in the catalogue section thus gains coherence, as the images of praiseworthy old women reading, preparing food, etc. made so frequently by artists Gerrit Dou, Nicolas Maes, Jan Lievens, and Rembrandt are explained in terms of their meaning rather than their access to a single model. The essay by Volker Manuth and Marieke de Winkel traces artists’ portraits of their mothers from Dürer to Rubens –i an interesting topic. But the authors agree that the images of old women in Rembrandt’s work are not portraits in that traditional sense, nor are they portraits historiés. Rather, they concur with the conclusion reached in many of the catalogue entries: these aged figures operate as tronies, images intended to conjure up associations to historical, biblical, or emblematic traditions. One would welcome a further consideration of that genre in this text.
This is a beautifully produced book, with good quality illustrations and an extensive bibliography. It will be an important resource to scholars of Rembrandt, and to those who are engaged in the larger discussion of the role played by depictions of old age in seventeenth-century Dutch art.